Tiger flashes signs of the old Tiger

Would the story of the Presidents Cup be about the good vibes of the Australian crowd – oy! oy! oy! – maybe being the difference? Or maybe about Geoff Ogilvy and Charl Schwartzel growing California Highway Patrol mustaches?

Nope. As always, all storylines from the Presidents Cup must defer to Tiger Woods. It’s the natural order of the universe.

The golf gods know this. Which is why, as always, the most important, relevant, gossipy, fascinating and lasting things from Royal Melbourne were about Tiger. It’s why they ensured Tiger’s point over an overmatched Aaron Baddeley was the clincher for the Yanks, so we could chew on the following topics:

The performance by Tiger Woods in Sunday's singles helped captain Fred Couples lead his Presidents Cup team to victory for the second straight time.
(Getty Images)

Is Tiger back? Is the golf world fearing him once more? Is Tiger’s putter weirdly dysfunctional, as evidenced by poor putting on Saturday? Why, if Tiger is back, was he on the business end of the worst Presidents Cup loss ever – 7 and 6 – with his buddy, Steve Stricker? Why did Tiger putt so well against Baddeley on Sunday? Was it the tip he said he got from Stricker, or does he thrive more in singles as opposed to team golf? How vindicated was Fred Couples for choosing Tiger as a captain’s pick? How badly did Greg Norman look for questioning the pick while getting served his lunch on the International’s home course?

And what was with Geoff Ogilvy and Charl Schwartzel sporting those mustaches?

[Related: Presidents Cup winners/losers: Jim Furyk flourishes; Greg Norman out

If you want symmetry, Australia may fittingly be the boomerang spot for Tiger’s career. If he is back, and 2012 is one of those six-win/two-major landmark years for Tiger, history will note that his last successful showing, pre-Escalade-into-a-fire-hydrant, was a win at the Australian Masters in 2009.

After that win, the National Enquirer got involved, and things got squirrelly.

Two years later, ranked 50th in the world instead of No. 1, he stirred chatter with a near-win (third place) at the Australian Masters. Tiger then came to Royal Melbourne and displayed his finest, most consistent ball-striking since the unfortunate events of Thanksgiving 2009.

Australia: Tiger’s Lourdes?

Before we start planning April’s green-jacket fitting, it must be noted that one year ago, amid turmoil, Tiger waxed Francesco Molinari, 4 and 3, in the 2010 Ryder Cup. There is something about match play in a singles format that brings out the bloodthirsty beast in Tiger, damaged knee or not, shredded reputation or not.

And there is the nettlesome matter of Tiger’s work on the putting greens in Day 3’s fourball match, when he whiffed on 11 birdie tries inside 15 feet. Oh-for-11! The old Tiger would have made nine, and been heated that he missed the other two. If four days of consistent play is what will win Tiger tournaments in 2012 – he remains winless since that ’09 Aussie Masters, back before the iPad even existed – then the entirety of his four-day run at Royal Melbourne (2-3) shows he may still be lacking.

And yet, after Woods disposed of Baddeley – in a manner so efficient and bloodless, it called to mind a man clearing a table and loading the dishwasher – there was something to the way his teammates mobbed him after, with spirited hugs and high-fives, and something to the way Tiger happily received the love. It was almost a “welcome back” party.

[Related: Greg Norman won’t return as International team’s Presidents Cup captain

Coming off a poor 2011 season, Jim Furyk went a perfect 5-0 at Royal Melbourne.
(Getty Images)

Even though the Return of Tiger to top-flight competition means everybody’s job gets harder, their team-wide embrace of the erstwhile world No. 1 maybe meant they knew three things: 1. Golf is better when Tiger is on the TV, hitting great shots; 2. Purses stay big and lucrative when Tiger attracts ratings; and; 3. In his Tiger 2.0 state, the fear factor of 1997-2009 has dissipated, and guys like Webb Simpson and Hunter Mahan and Nick Watney can play Sundays without needing a diaper.

Even Johnny Miller, who usually sharpens his fangs for moments like these, sounded impressed by Tiger’s flush golf shots. “If he can get putting again,” Miller said, “watch out.” Of course, that’s the thing. There’s no guarantee – or lasting evidence – that Tiger Woods can ever again putt like, well, Tiger Woods.

And the fact is, Tiger only scored two points as a captain’s pick, outpointed by seven teammates, even though he played all five sessions. But statistics can deceive, and Tiger received little help from wayward partner Dustin Johnson in a couple of those matches, and from an ailing Stricker in their embarrassing beatdown at the hands of K.J. Choi, Adam Scott and – oh, yeah – caddie Steve Williams.

But to watch him play his last two rounds – his foursomes win with Johnson and his Sunday singles win, littered with cleanly struck golf shots and scores of greens in regulation – was to see something click, to see a spark where prior there had been none.

There was a moment in the singles finals. The third green was playing diabolically on the final day, and both Bubba Watson and Jason Day had the ignominy of seeing long putts from above the hole roll … and roll … and roll … off the green into a collection area that might as well have been named “Area of Shame.” The putts were so agonizingly long in their journeys that the galleries had time to register shock, dismay and, eventually, comic laughter as the golf balls conceded to gravity.

Tiger had the same endlessly long, endlessly fast, endlessly breaking putt as Day and Watson when he got to the third green. Would the great Tiger endure the walk of shame? Hardly. He read it beautifully, and struck a putt of perfect speed. Not only did his golf ball not roll off the green, it rolled closer and closer with the purity of his intent. He damn near made the birdie putt, and tapped in for par.

Moments like that remind you of the magic inside. That’s the takeaway from Royal Melbourne.

Scorecard of the week

Jim Furyk/Phil Mickelson d. Retief Goosen/Robert Allenby, 4 and 3 (Thursday foursomes). Furyk/Mickelson d. Adam Scott/K.T. Kim, 2 and 1 (Friday fourballs). Furyk/Mickelson d. Aaron Baddeley/Jason Day, 2 and 1 (Saturday foursomes). Furyk/Nick Watney d. Scott/Ernie Els, 1 up (Saturday fourballs). Furyk d. Els, 4 and 3 (Sunday singles).

When it was over, Jim Furyk should have saddled a horse, tipped his cap to a rescued damsel in distress and ridden off into the sunset – the stoic sheriff, leaving dead bad guys strewn all over Royal Melbourne.

There’s no sizzle to Furyk. There’s no crazy physical talent, à la Dustin Johnson; there are no 360-yard bombs off the tee, à la Bubba Watson; there’s no global fame, à la Tiger or Phil.

Greg Norman found himself once again on the losing end of a major golf event.
(Getty Images)

There’s just Jim Furyk: American golfer, ready to grind you and wear you down until the next thing you know, he’s removing his ball cap, unleashing the baldest dome you’ve ever seen and shaking your hand after he’s vanquished you.

Furyk went 5-0 in Melbourne, and only Hunter Mahan (4-1) came close to his production. He played the role of surprise hero perfectly, having turned in a forgettable 2011 season that included missed cuts at the U.S. Open and the Players Championship, and no major championship finish higher than his tie-24th at Augusta.

True to his nature, Furyk credited Mickelson with his sensational Presidents Cup, saying Lefty must have noticed Furyk’s confidence was wavering, and probably asked to play with his longtime pal. They played Pac-10 golf against each other more than 20 years ago – Furyk at Arizona, Mickelson at Arizona State – and both turned pro in 1992. Over the last two decades, Furyk has played on 14 Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams; Mickelson on 17.

This was not their first rodeo, or even their 100th rodeo. These are longtime friends and competitors who know each other’s body language and swing rhythms. So when Couples put the two together, it was like Furyk was wearing an old comfy sweatshirt. The pairing rejuvenated Furyk, and the rail-thin Pennsylvanian turned out to be Couples’ most ferocious weapon.

Mulligan of the week

• Statistically, and truthfully, Mickelson had a heck of a Presidents Cup. He went 3-1, played the healer’s role for Furyk and was outpointed only by Furyk and Mahan.

And yet …

What the heck was with that start in the Sunday singles against Adam Scott?

It started with Mickelson shouting “FORE RIGHT!” off the first tee box, and spiraled downward from there. There was the errant shot off the grandstands on No. 2. There was the failed chip on No. 3, where the ball was unable to scale the false front and trickled back to his feet. Lefty compounded the embarrassment by backing that up with a crazy bad flop shot into a greenside bunker.

When he fetched his ball from that bunker, he gave Scott the jerked thumb/hitchhiker sign, the international golf sign of “Pick your ball up, I’m soiling the bed here.”

In fact, it was his third consecutive pick-up in three holes, as if a 22-handicap had somehow crashed the Presidents Cup in an elaborate ruse.

What had happened to the Mickelson who was 3-0 entering that Sunday match? Was he thinking about the woes of his beloved San Diego Chargers? Had Couples’ decision to rest Lefty in the Saturday afternoon session resulted in Lefty forgetting how to play golf? Did the mere sight of Steve (Yes, I Called Mickelson A “Prick”) Williams rattle him to no end?

Truth is, Mickelson deserves a ton of credit for escaping his cocoon of embarrassment and making a match of it. After falling 4-down on the 5th hole, Lefty made four birdies and no bogeys the rest of the way, and actually extended the match all the way to the 17th hole before falling to Scott, who won 2 and 1.

But for the sake of all that is sightly, we need to replay those first three holes. Can we go back to Royal Melbourne, re-tee on the first tee box and … give that Lefty a mulligan!

Broadcast moment of the week

“I still would have taken Keegan Bradley. He’s a major championship winner … but, the Americans beat our butts.” – Greg Norman, International captain, asked by Jimmy Roberts on The Golf Channel about his criticism of Woods as a captain’s pick after Tiger won the clinching match.

Poor Greg Norman. Not only did he have to lose again as the International captain, this time on his home turf, he also had to endure questions about Tiger clinching the match for the extra groin punch.

Meanwhile, everyone knew Norman’s captain’s pick, Robert Allenby, played the role of lead balloon for the Internationals. Allenby put up a goose egg in four matches and looked badly overmatched by the big stage. On the American side, hang-loose Freddy Couples picked Tiger, announced it a month early, then watched Tiger mop the floor with Australia’s own Baddeley, once presumed to be the “next Norman.”

Norman got precious little help from his horses. Ernie Els, 42, looks tired and lost on the putting green, and after a winless 2011 – including missed cuts at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship – went 1-4 for the Shark at Melbourne, never threatening Furyk in the Sunday singles. Jason Day is maybe the best player on the International side, an absolute star-in-waiting at age 24. And yet, at Melbourne, Day went 1-3-1 and sprayed the ball all over the Sand Belt in a 5 and 3 loss to Mahan that helped turn the Sunday tide toward Uncle Sam.

Ogilvy and Schwartzel – the ‘Stache Twins – were Norman’s best players, scoring 3½ points each, and looking composed and capable all the while. Plus, they can pull you over and write you a ticket for speeding.

The question for the International side going forward: Can’t anyone here play this game? The Americans have still only lost one Presidents Cup since its inception in 1994, going 7-1-1 in the nine matches. (The lone tie was the memorable Cup at South Africa, called on darkness by captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.)

It’s not as if the Americans are an unbeatable force in international match play, as I was just saying to my good friends Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Darren Clarke. In fact, the Europeans sort of own the U.S. in Ryder Cup play, having won four of the last five and six of the last eight Ryder Cups.

So what can the Internationals do, short of re-jiggering the qualification system to get Yani Tseng a spot on the squad? Norman, on his way out as captain after two stints filled with goodwill, if not wins, suggested Sunday that future captains should have four captain’s picks, not two. If part of the International team problem is that the varied nations involved – Australia, South Africa, Japan, Korea, even sometimes Colombia, Argentina and Canada – makes for an awkward mix, Norman suggested two extra captain’s picks can help create a firmer, more sound chemistry.

Makes sense. So does Norman’s suggestion that the host country should choose the format. The Internationals are awful at foursomes, and yet the Presidents Cup opens with foursomes, putting the Internationals in a hole. Norman wonders why the host nation can’t choose to start with fourballs, to give a bit of a “home-field advantage.” Again, makes sense.

Anything to get this thing competitive, lest the Presidents Cup turn into an SEC football team taking on a Championship Subdivision sacrificial lamb every two years.

Where do we go from here?

• Before we bunk down for the holidays, don’t forget – more micro-analysis of Tiger’s game at the Chevron World Challenge in Southern California week after next. It’s Tiger’s party and features a dynamite field. It’s also an unofficial event, so if Tiger wins we can hem and haw over whether it officially counts as a comeback.

Let the Tiger hand-wringing continue!

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Brian Murphy writes a weekly golf column for Yahoo! Sports. Send Brian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Nov 20, 2011